Thursday, April 9, 2009

Delightful Ambiguity: Mome 14

Rob reviews the 14th volume of Fantagraphics' flagship anthology, MOME.

If MOME #13 felt a bit all over the place, #14 went much further with that sense of fragmentation, juxtaposing stories with ambiguous images and endings to create a dizzying and fascinating array of visual styles. The interstitial pieces by Derek Von Gieson add flavor and color throughout the issue, acting as a sort of visual palate cleanser between stories. These are open-ended, one page narratives that vary between first person accounts of post-apocalyptic landscapes or embarrassingly intimate details regarding a busted-up wedding to third-person accounts of a boy and his vicious parasites. What they all have in common is that they thrust the reader into the middle of a narrative with little context and no backstory and deal in quotidian details. That matter-of-factness extends to the weirdest of circumstances, adding to the sense of both enigma and familiarity the reader feels with each snippet. That sense of mystery, dread and resignation pervades much of the entire issue, giving it a thematic cohesion that wasn't always seen in past volumes.

Laura Park's second MOME offering, "Office 32F", felt a bit more substantive than her first contribution. It's a whimsical tale of paranoia and awareness, slipping in and out of autobiography as she writes a journal about her discovery that she was under surveillance by a tiny group of spies. The level of quirky detail she provides (like finding a tiny pair of saltines in her celphone, or finding a tiny pair of mittens in a spider web, bleaching them and then flushing them down the toilet) speaks to the way that she was simultaneously alarmed and comforted by the spies in her life. Her actions took on the bearing of ritual, both in the sense of daily actions that we engage in as a sort of comfortable groove as well as an active ceremony designed to evoke a particular desired outcome. When she learned that she was no longer being watched and may not have been the real subject at any time, there was more than a twinge of disappointment--as well as a wink to the audience. That seemed to indicate her simultaneous unease and excitement of having her work (much of it autobiographical) viewed and judged by an audience, creating an invisible relationship that nonetheless had a significant impact.

Olivier Schwauren's second entry to MOME has the feel of an unearthed artifact, bursting with a crude energy reminiscent of a Golden Age comic. If this story had been published fifty years ago, Dan Nadel would have already reprinted it. The washed-out sepia tones give the story that sense of being of a different era, and the deliberate lack of detail he provides in framing his stories of single-minded obsession further tantalize the reader. It's a room full of men engaged in some activity--is it a parlor? a bar? an mental institution? It's impossible to say. There are power hierarchies here even as some men strive to break out of their tedium. In this instance, one man shows another a crudely-drawn dungeon adventure page that he says is a sort of game and cajoles someone else into trying it. After being mocked, the protagonist loses it and his dragged away, but it's left open as to what kind of impact his game has on his friend. Schwauren's strips have their own loony internal logic that evokes a certain delight when followed. The only cartoonist I can think of that does anything remotely similar in intent is Gerald Jablonski, though both men are so idiosyncratic as cartoonists that their output is completely different.

There are a number of stories here whose appeal is primarily visual, leaving it up to the reader to make connections or draw conclusions. The Ben Jones/Frank Santoro/Jon Vermilyea team-up for a Cold Heat episode was the most striking of these, as aliens observe a rock star being consumed by a swirling demon whose reach apparently threatens the entire world. It's a wordless piece that slides us from image to image, never stopping to explain the hows and whys of the situation, instead forcing the reader to accept the information provided on the page and react to it. Vermilyea also continued his motif of homicidal, anthropomorphic food items with a strip about Kool-Aid Man crashing through a wall to give kids some "special" Kool-Aid...and then gruesomely pick up the pieces. That touch of the grotesque and the absurd was a great find by editor Eric Reynolds and makes for a great contrast with the more austere and inward-looking pieces publishing in MOME. That's also true of Josh Simmons, whose "Funny Pages" is an Ivan Brunetti-esque hijacking of a standard page of comic strips, turning them into something more brutal or coarse.

Stories by Dash Shaw, Sara Edward-Corbett and Conor O'Keefe are also striking in their use of visuals in very different ways. O'Keefe's story is a cross between Winsor McKay (in terms of the quality of his line) and EC Segar (in terms of story content). Like both of those cartoonists, this story has the feel of animation, with exaggerated action as a boat manned by an unusual cry is buffetted by the waves. Edward-Corbett's story is similarly slight and short but stands out because of her beautiful line work and bold use of color in a retelling of the tortoise and the hare. Shaw's use of color in "Scenes from the Abyss" is absolutely stunning. It's a simple story about an ambitious but banal young screenwriter trying to get his project made and impress those around him. Each segment of the story is introduced with a large panel dominated by a circular structure: a lamp, a tank of water containing a stage, a hot tub, a reel of film, etc. There's a sleazy sense of fakeness to this character, who in every stage of the story is finding a different way to distort reality, a practice reflected in the way Shaw blurs and distorts light and color in this strip.

There's plenty of straight-out humor in this issue, some of which is more effective than others. Ray Fenwick continues his funny "Truth Bear" series and the Stick's quest for truth takes an unusual turn when a non-omniscient creator shows up. Fenwick's work is pretty much an examplar of idiosyncratic, valuing both words and drawings equally in terms of their plastic qualities. Hernan Migoya and Juaco Vizuete check in from Spain (keeping up MOME's tradition of introducing American audiences to foreign cartoonists) with a bawdy story about a hard-luck Peruvian who winds up with a job as a gofer for a popular but monstrous popular singer. It's not exactly subtle in the punches it throws, but the cartooning is so weird and elastic that it's compelling. Speaking of a lack of subtlety, Emile Bravo's "Wild West Winging It" is a parable about current American politics down as a Western. While it was interesting to get a Frenchman's perspective on the 2008 election, the hits he lands are all too obvious. The same goes for the second installment of Gilbert Shelton's Not Quite Dead story. I will say that this segment was funnier than the first, thanks to getting much of the ham-handed approach to religion of politics being thrust to the side and a preponderance of funny drawings taking the forefront here.

The centerpiece story in this issue of MOME is Lilli Carre's "Carnival". Carre' in some respects is a perfect replacement for Gabrielle Bell in MOME (though Bell may contribute some more stories in the future, she will be far from a regular). Her line is somewhat similar, though Carre's work is a bit more stylized, especially in her character design. Like Bell, Carre' went through a period of rapid improvement and is not publishing some striking stories. "Carnival" is a blend of magical realism and heartbreaking loneliness played out as a sort of emotional deadening. The Carre' stories I've read tend to be about longing denied or somehow frustrated. This story concerns a man who can't make lasting connections (we're tipped off by his profession of car salesman) who nonetheless feels the void in his life encountering a free-spirited single mother at a carnival. Their potential connection goes awry on both their parts for different reasons and both of them are left with fantasy as their only real outlet.

The variety of visual approaches and storytelling styles, along with the international flavor of the anthology, have transformed MOME from a showcase for a handful of young artists to a sort of latter-day RAW. Obviously, it's not the sort of sui generis creation that RAW was, but it's appealing to the same sort of sensibilities. It no longer seems to be aiming to be an entry-level comics anthology for highly literate audiences; instead, it's now assuming that those literate audiences are quite capable of handling any number of styles. MOME might also become a place where work that was going to be printed in comic books that are no longer being published due to industry & economic concerns might now find a home. The balance struck by editors Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth between unpublished, up-and-coming artists, alt-comics legends with short stories to publish and international stars with stellar work that needed translation has been a delicate one, but when everything comes together just so (especially in issues 12 and this issue), then MOME becomes a crucial component in understanding alt-comics as they stand today.

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